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Off field antics dominate dull start to European rugby season Posted about 4 years ago

The first month of the season in Europe has been more notable for what has happened off the field that on it. If only the leading clubs in England would show the imagination and tactical acumen in the way they play the game as their umbrella organisation, Premiership Rugby, employs in its commercial dealings.

The future of the Heineken Cup is in the balance because the English and French clubs believe it is weighted in favour of the four nations who compete in the RaboDirect Pro 12, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, and fails to maximise its commercial potential.

They argue that the 24 teams who compete in the tournament are not equal because finishing positions in the English and French leagues are the basis for qualification whereas a side can finish at the bottom of the Pro 12 but play in the Heineken Cup.

For the English and French to get their way, the Heineken Cup would have to change its identity. It was set up in 1995 as a means of helping to pay for professionalism, organised by unions and run by unions. When Italy were assimilated, it was very much a Six Nations event and any sense of fairness was spread among the competing countries rather than the teams they supplied.

The changes proposed by the English and French clubs, based on finishing positions, would on last season’s evidence leave Italy without a team in the Heineken Cup and reduce Scotland to one side. The response of the Pro 12 unions is to look to divide and rule by offering the French concessions that would leave the Premiership clubs isolated.

Such an amateur approach would achieve nothing. The Heineken Cup stakeholders meet in Rome on Monday having spent five hours together in Dublin last month: little was talked about then in terms of detail, but by securing an alternative broadcaster, Premiership Rugby claims that revenue could rise by 50 per cent.

The English and French have given notice to pull out of the tournament and are proceeding on the basis that the best way to get change is to make a lot of noise, but it is an episode that once again shows, no matter what compromise is ultimately reached, that rugby union has lost its soul.

It used to be argued that it was unique, but it is now just another sport. Part of Premiership Rugby’s justification is that it is seeking a level playing field with Ireland’s leading two provinces, who regularly rest players during a Pro 12 campaign knowing that European qualification is all but a given, but England would be missed for what they offer sponsors and broadcasters, an audience, not the quality of their rugby.

The Premiership started with a blaze of tries on the opening weekend when two matches were held at Twickenham, but it has quickly stagnated. Off-loading is the exception rather than the norm and ball-carriers all too often seek the sanctuary of contact and go to ground where ball is slowly recycled.

Kicking contests follow, but such is the tribal nature of the game in England and France that spectators are not attracted or repelled by the type of rugby they are likely to see. A crowd of more than 40,000 was at Wembley last month to witness a bore draw between Saracens and Leicester; were the game replayed this weekend, the figure would probably be the same.

Bath played Sale in the last round. It was 49 minutes before there was a line break, and then it was made by a tight-head prop. It led to the first try, appropriately scored by the prop himself, and there were three more: one from a flurry of pick-and-gos near the line, another from a driving line-out and the third was a penalty try awarded after a scrum collapse.

There was almost no creativity, and none until Danny Cipriani was summoned from the bench. England never waste any time talking about the commercial opportunities hosting the World Cup in 2015 will bring, but if the national side is to make a positive impact on the tournament, attention needs to be paid to the way the game is played at the professional level.

Premiership Rugby will not be bending its ear because, commercially, its tournament is successful, even in a recession. It is time for players to take a stand and show why they are among the game’s elite. If that means rising up against safety-first coaches who churn out tackle bags, so be it.

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Paul Rees was born in Cardiff and has been a full-time writer on rugby union since 1986, first for the South Wales Echo, then Wales and Sunday and, from 2001, the Guardian and the Observer, having contributed to the former on a freelance basis since 1988. He has covered every World Cup since 1991 and five Lions tours. When time allows, he also write on cricket, mainly Glamorgan. And away from work, he a season-ticket holder at Arsenal, watching them home and away, including the European Champions League final against Barcelona in Paris in 2006.

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